New Brunswick

'It's pretty desperate': Moncton's homeless need emergency shelter to survive winter

Using words like desperate, crisis and disaster to describe the lack of affordable housing in Moncton, people who work on the streets believe there will be deaths this winter unless an emergency "out-of-the-cold" shelter can be opened.

Charles Burrell of Humanity Project hopes to find way to open an out-of-the-cold shelter

Donald Morel is one of about 120 people in Moncton who are living in tents. Morel built this shelter out of a rubber tarp he found on the street, wood he scavenged and branches. He uses an old barbecue and propane tank to keep warm. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Using words like desperate, crisis and disaster to describe the lack of affordable housing in Moncton, people who work on the streets believe there will be deaths this winter unless an emergency "out-of-the-cold" shelter can be opened.

If something doesn't change this winter, we are going to see deaths.- Lisa Ryan, YMCAs ReConnect program

"We've got people sleeping under patios in abandoned buildings, they're in tents, they are sleeping outside in the elements," said Lisa Ryan, director of outreach programs for the YMCA of Greater Moncton.

"If something doesn't change this winter, we are going to see deaths. We are going to see people die out there because they are self-medicating themselves to the point of not being able to really take care of themselves."

Crouched in a small, homemade tent behind a boarded-up rooming house, Donald Morel has spent the better part of the past three years living outside in Moncton.

He uses a propane barbecue to keep warm at night and said he would rather stay in his tent, which he built from an old rubber tarp and branches, than stay in a local shelter.

"I call that a crack house," he said of one shelter. "A lot of people doing dope there, so I'm not going where the people do dope."

Number on streets has 'doubled'

Charles Burrell, founder and president of the Humanity Project, which serves a free meal every day to more than 100 people in Moncton, estimates the number of people on the streets this fall is double what it was last year.

"It's a crisis with the amount of people that are out there on the the streets and sleeping outside," he said.

Charles Burrell, the founder of the Humanity Project, said he and his volunteers will find a way to remain open on cold days and nights to 'make sure that nobody dies this winter.' (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Burrell said last winter he and his volunteers kept their building on St. George Street open for 24 hours on seven very cold days and are now discussing a more regular out-of-the-cold shelter for the coming winter.

He said it worked well last year and people who stayed in the building overnight, in sleeping bags, respected the rules he set.

"I told them you can come in at two o'clock in the morning to warm up if you want, and you can leave at four in the morning if you want. But there's only one thing. Don't disturb anyone who's sleeping."

The majority of the folks that are outside right now are not prepared for the cold. They do not have winter jackets, they do not have winter sleeping bags, their tents are full of holes.- Lisa Ryan, YMCAs ReConnect program

Burrell said volunteers played movies and served coffee and food all night long.

"People that wanted to sleep got to sleep, and the people who were coming in just to warm up warmed up."

Burrell is considering opening his building as a permanent out-of-the-cold shelter for people this winter but said it will take a commitment from the community.

"Whether I have to sit here by myself or just me and somebody else all night staying open, we're going to try to make it happen because it's the right thing to do."

Rise in people 'living rough' 

Ryan estimated the number of people, like Morel, who are currently living outside in tents, at about 120. She and her staff at the YMCA's ReConnect program have visited about 90 of them.

"We just holler out who we are and just say, 'Hey, it's Lisa from ReConnect, I've got a couple of things for you. I'm wondering if I can come in.'"

Lisa Ryan, the manager of Moncton's ReConnect Street Intervention program, worries that with the rise in the number of people sleeping outside, there will be deaths this winter. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Ryan, who brings people a "welcome package" that includes a gift card and clean socks, said many invite her into their tents.

"It's just like you're going into somebody's home. They want to offer you whatever they have — a bottle of water, or 'Did you want some of these cookies?'" 

CBC reporter Vanessa Blanch looks at the desperate need for an emergency "out-of-the-cold" shelter in Moncton this winter. 8:37

As much as the tents serve as a home during the warmer months, Ryan said they aren't a year-round solution.

"The majority of the folks that are outside right now are not prepared for the cold. They do not have winter jackets, they do not have winter sleeping bags, their tents are full of holes."

The other factor that is making it more difficult for homeless people in Moncton is the fact that ReConnect closed its drop-in centre in March, after being evicted from its space.

Ryan said that means this winter there are fewer places in the city where people can warm up on a cold day.

'Desperate circumstances'

Darcy Cormier, community development co-ordinator with the Greater Moncton Homelessness Steering Committee, said as the temperatures drop, the situation is only becoming more dire.

"I'd say we're in fairly desperate circumstances here in Moncton," she said.

Darcy Cormier, community development co-ordinator with the Greater Moncton Homelessness Steering Committee, said with no new government funding expected until April 1, it is time to open an out-of-the-cold emergency shelter in Moncton for the the winter. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Moncton has the highest percentage of non-elderly, single people on the waiting list for a subsidized apartment with New Brunswick Housing, and a higher than average number of single people receiving income assistance cheques of $537 per month.

Am I up for it? Not really. But I'm not up for people sleeping in a snowbank either.- Charles Burrell, the Humanity Project

"No one on income assistance … can afford anything that's not tied to a subsidy or that's beyond a room," Cormier said.

With rooming houses being demolished, Burrell said, people are left with few options.

He said around the Humanity Project's building, he has watched two rooming houses be torn down in the past year.

"We keep tearing down … and I've yet to see any new ones being built, so you know when you keep tearing things down and you're not building anything new it creates a problem."

Government moves slowly

While non-profit groups wait for the federal, provincial and municipal governments to determine how new affordable housing funding will be spent, Cormier said the reality is that none of those millions will be available until at least April 1.

"No funds from any of these plans will be rolling or flowing before the next fiscal year," she said. "In the meantime Moncton is experiencing … a near crisis level of folks who are sleeping outside still.

"I think it'd be ideal if the city could step up and take some initiative around bringing people together — do they have a pot of money for emergency situations?"

Mayor Dawn Arnold said recently that Moncton is waiting for the affordable housing strategy of the federal and provincial governments to 'trickle down to the municipal level.' (CBC)

Mayor Dawn Arnold said recently that Moncton is waiting for the affordable housing strategy of the federal and provincial governments to "trickle down to the municipal level." 

Burrell said people who are living on the streets can't wait, and added it is people taking action, not money, that will fix the problem.

When asked whether he is up for opening an emergency shelter in Moncton this winter as part the services offered by the Humanity Project, Burrell sighed.

"Am I up for it? Not really. But I'm not up for people sleeping in a snowbank either," he said.

"I think together we can make it happen, and we can work together to make sure that nobody dies this winter."

About the Author

Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for nearly 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please e-mail: vanessa.blanch@cbc.ca

with files from Shane Magee

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